FORT WORTH, Texas — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the Air Force to suspend all aircraft transfers and retirements scheduled for this fiscal year, bowing to fierce congressional opposition to significant changes in the Air National Guard and restoring hope that Texas may get to keep a squadron of C-130 aircraft.
Panetta's letter, mailed Friday to the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, does not directly affect the aircraft of the Texas Air National Guard's 136th Airlift Wing, based at Naval Air Station Fort Worth. Those aircraft had been designated by the Air Force to move to Great Falls, Mont., in fiscal 2014, which state and congressional officials throughout the Gulf Coast states have fought vigorously.
But Panetta's overruling of the Air Force and suspension of this year's aircraft transfers was received warmly by members of the Texas delegation, who believe that it signals a willingness to negotiate thorny issues like the C-130 move.
"I applaud Secretary Panetta's decision to suspend the Air Force's current plan to relocate Air National Guard aircraft," said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. "This decision supports the entire Texas and Gulf Coast delegations' efforts to keep our C-130 squadron in Fort Worth. These planes are critical to our ability to respond to natural disasters throughout the region."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she, too, is pleased with Panetta's decision and has reiterated to him that "there is no military advantage to moving these aircraft and incurring the cost of building new facilities to house them."
"This decision gives the Air Force and Congress an opportunity to work toward a long-term plan for the best use of our nation's Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve assets," she told the Star-Telegram.
The uproar began early this year when the Air Force announced that it would cut 5,000 personnel in the Air National Guard, retire 151 Guard aircraft and move dozens more planes within several years. Air National Guard squadrons, which governors can use during emergencies, are prized in states and closely guarded by political leaders.
In Texas, the Air Force wants to move the C-130s from Fort Worth to Montana and replace them with much smaller MC-12 Liberty aircraft, used for gathering intelligence. Officials throughout Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida pushed back, saying the four-engine C-130s are essential during hurricanes and other disasters.
They are equally desired by officials in Montana, who are scheduled to see their Air National Guard F-15 fighters moved out of state as part of the nationwide realignment. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer sued the federal government this month to stop the military from moving the F-15s without guaranteeing replacements.
Air Force leaders did not yield on their plans, arguing that the changes are necessary to save money, retire older aircraft and fulfill the service's missions. They said more cuts had to come in the part-time Guard than in the active-duty ranks.
Both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2013 defense budget force the Air Force to stop its plans until cost-benefit analyses can be done; Panetta acknowledged in the letter that this is creating problems.
"This provision has introduced a new dimension of complexity to the current situation, as it impacts force structure adjustments addressed in budgets from FY 2010, FY 2011 and FY 2012 involving the transfer of approximately 150 aircraft among various locations and the retirement of 98 aircraft," the letter says. "... While the Air Force could proceed with these previously addressed moves, the more prudent course of action is to take a cautious approach."
Panetta wrote to the senators that Congress must provide "clear support for a way forward" by settling the aircraft issue in the fiscal 2013 budget.
"I would also caution that delaying FY 2013 force structure decisions and potentially revisiting decisions from earlier budget cycles will only make our FY 2014 deliberations even more complex and difficult," the letter says.